The legend of Sweeney Todd has been well documented over the years. Along with the infamous case of Jack the Ripper, it ranks as one of London's darkest and most gruesome crimes. Many films and books and a famous musical have used Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as their subject, a barber who slit his client’s throats and then passed on the bodies to be made into meat pies.
For many people, the story of Sweeney Todd is just that: myth and tall tales. Critics claim that there has never been any reliable evidence found or recorded of the demon barber. British crime story writer Peter Haining has undertaken exhaustive research that he claims proves the existence of Sweeney Todd.
According to Haining, Sweeney Todd was born in 1748. At the time, London was brutally poor and violent. Todd's parents were alcoholics, and when he was 13 years old, his parents left the house one night in search of alcohol and were never to return. The common thought is that they became drunk and froze to death on that cold winter night.
Todd was turned over to the local parish, where he was taught a trade as a cutler, a person responsible for sharpening knives and razors. At the age of 14, Todd was found guilty of theft and sentenced to five years in Newgate Prison. It was here that he learned his apprenticeship as a barber, shaving prisoners for a fee.
When he was released from prison, Sweeney Todd set himself up in his own barber's shop in Fleet Street. His barber shop was next to a church, and underneath the two were tunnels and crypts used to bury some of the parish's dead. Outside Todd's new shop, he hung a sign reading, Easy shaving for a penny, as good as you will find any.
By the time Todd opened his shop, he had already killed one victim, but his killing was to go from strength to strength. His barber's chair was situated on the second floor of his shop. The chair was specially built to be able to swing below and deposit his victims into the empty first floor. Sweeney Todd would kill and strip his victims of their valuables, but that was not the only thing he would strip his victims of.
Sweeney Todd's accomplice was a woman named Margery Lovett. Lovett was to become Todd’s lover, and her pies were soon famous around London. After Todd slit his victim’s throats, he would strip the body of the meat and deliver it to Lovett's shop through the tunnels. The bodies would then be dumped in the tunnels underneath the parish church. It was the victim's meat that gave Lovett’s pies the delicious taste that London craved.
The smell from the Parish crypts soon became unbearable, and the police were called in. Further investigations found decaying bodies piled on top of each other, almost reaching to the roof. In all, 160 people were thought to have been dispatched at the hand of Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd was tried at the Old Bailey and hanged at Newgate in 1802. Margery Lovett cheated the hangman's noose by confessing all and poisoning herself while in jail. Whether fact or fiction, Sweeney Todd will continue to be in the mind of every person who has a straight razor shave for many years to come.